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photo: Chris Shields

The karner blue butterfly saved the Albany Pine Bush. At least, its status as a federally endangered species gave the people who saved the Pine Bush a legal tool to take into the courts and use to fight overdevelopment and push for preservation.

But today, though the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission has managed to add 800 acres to the preserve largely through the largesse of the state Environmental Protection Fund over the past 15 years, bringing it to more than 3,000 acres, the preserve is still 1,600 acres short of what would be considered the minimum acreage needed to stay viable and stable as an ecological system over the long term. Pitched battles are still being fought over development all along its edges.

Many regional residents aren’t sure exactly where this Pine Bush thing is and wouldn’t know a pitch pine if it sprouted in their front yard.

At the Dec. 5, 2005, Albany Common Council meeting, during a public hearing on rezoning a small portion of land near the Daughters of Sarah Nursing Home for expansion of their building, a spokesman for the nursing home presented a study that showed no karner blues had been seen on the tiny parcel in several years.

Council members struggled to understand why concerned residents were opposing the development anyway. Descriptions of a fire-based ecosystem where lupine, the flower on which the karner blues feed, migrates from place to place following cyclical nutrient availability, with the butterflies following, fell on confused ears. Arguments about the Pine Bush’s value as a whole and the danger of steady erosion at its edges barely got a chance to be made. It was a tiny parcel, it wasn’t currently occupied by a federally endangered species. The rezoning passed.

“We’re lucky we have a rare insect,” says James Reppert, a local landscape architect and urban planner who used to work for Albany County, “but it’s a result of a plant, which is the result of a whole area. People still don’t recognize that landscape when they see it.”

Take a stroll in the Pine Bush, and you can feel like you’re in a different world. Underfoot is sand. The dominant pitch pines are twisted and knobby. It’s not unusual to hear a coyote howl. Patches of trees with blackened trunks indicate where a planned fire has recently been staged.

The Pine Bush is a globally rare ecosystem. Pine barrens are areas dominated by pines on nutrient-poor sandy soils, usually dependent on regular fires, and inhabited by species not found in the surrounding deciduous forests. Pine barrens themselves are rare, but Albany’s is even rarer, being perhaps the only known inland barrens formed from glacial sand deposits in a large lake, rather than sand from the sea, or gravel.

The Albany Pine Bush tends to be several degrees warmer than the surrounding area, with summer temperatures reaching the highest in the state. It still has large vegetated dunes that were formed by the wind as the glaciers retreated and Lake Albany dried up. It is drained by streams that run in deep ravines, and its vernal ponds are as rare a habitat as its pitch pine-scrub oak barrens. It tends to harbor plants and animals more characteristic of climes farther south, as well as some that live only in similar niches.

The Natural History of the Pine Bush, by Jeffrey Barnes, published in 2003, lists six rare plants, 14 rare insects, and four rare reptiles and amphibians, as well as nearly a dozen birds or reptiles that meet the lesser standards of “threatened” or “of special concern” that live in the Pine Bush. The Pine Bush is also the place of discovery and scientific reference point for more than 100 species of fungi, 70 species of insects, and a vast number of plants, notes Barnes.

“It’s not about a butterfly, it’s about one of the most endangered and rare habitats in the country, in the world, an inland pine barrens,” says Chris Hawver, executive director of the Albany Pine Bush Preserve Commission, a body formed in 1988 by the state Legislature and made up of representatives from the Department of Environmental Conservation, the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the Nature Conservancy, the City of Albany, Town of Colonie, Town of Guilderland, County of Albany and four citizen representatives. “It’s the habitat that the butterfly uses, and it just so happens that the butterfly is endangered because of a loss of habitat, but it’s much more than a butterfly.”

Reppert likes to say that his favorite “wildlife” spotting in the Pine Bush was a field biologist hard at work because it was an exciting reminder of just how rare and special a locale it is. There’s a danger in “hanging your hat on a banner insect” when the “uniqueness is in the whole package,” he says. “We’re always pointing ecological fingers at others. ‘Don’t destroy your rainforests!’ ” Well, he continues, we are destroying something in our own backyard.

When the Pine Bush enters the news these days, it’s usually due to a fight. These fights often seem like momentous no-win predicaments, as with the debates over what to do with the increasingly full Rapp Road Landfill (look for a Metroland feature on the landfill next week) or like narrowly drawn 11th-hour zoning fights that hinge on the presence of the famous karner blue.

While these are important battles being waged, they don’t on their own carve a path toward successful preservation of the Pine Bush. What would a proactive appreciation of Albany’s ecological resource look like?

It might start with finding a way to spread recognition of what the Pine Bush is—and how far it extends. Development, especially roads and large parking lots, is seriously damaging to the Pine Bush, particularly by fragmenting the habitat. The Preserve Commission’s 2002 management plan calls for 1,875 privately owned acres within its study area to receive full protection and 665 to remain open space for buffering, and also identifies areas totaling 1,085 acres where partial portions of the sites should be protected. The study area extends from Fuller Road to Route 146 and from Western to Central avenues.

A hint of natural: Pine bush species at the Daughters of Sarah nursing home.

But that doesn’t mean that places that have already been developed cease to be in the Pine Bush region, nor does it mean that study area represents the extent of the land that once was Pine Bush and whose soils would readily support Pine Bush habitat again, given a chance—the Pine Bush originally covered 25,000 acres, and extended at least as far east as the Harriman Office Campus and as far west as Schenectady.

Still, even for those who would be interested, it can be hard to know when you’re in spitting distance of the preserve, let alone within the full study area, even though I-90, I-87, and Route 155 all cut directly through the preserve, Washington Avenue Extension dead-ends into it, and Fuller Road runs along its eastern edge.

Driving east along the Thruway from Schenectady toward Albany, sharp-eyed observers might notice an increase in the number of pines along the roadway, but there’s very little that would let them understand what they are seeing. As drivers approach the Guilderland rest stop, they may notice a sign in the median that welcomes them to the Hudson Valley Natural Heritage Area. If they pull into the rest area, a small sign gives a dedication to American servicemen and women. If they read through all six sides of the informational kiosk in the rest stop that describes the history of the area and the road, they will find a couple-sentence description of the Pine Bush in the introduction to the panel on the history of the fur trade. That’s the extent of the welcome. In most cases you have to actually get to an entrance to the preserve to be told that’s where you are.

Is it possible to increase residents’ and visitors’ awareness of where they are if they have not sought out the preserve itself for recreation or education?

Reppert believes that a widespread campaign of replanting public lands, especially roadways, rest stops and the UAlbany uptown campus, with native species—and particularly native species that visibly look like Pine Bush, could provide a visual clue for motorists on the roads that cut through or along the edges of the Pine Bush and for the thousands of people—students, parents and others—who visit the campus.

A no-mow and native planting approach “would signal to motorists that they are entering a special area imbued with indigenous character that is too important to be disturbed,” he wrote in a proposal called “Albany’s Last Frontier.” “It would make a visible statement that the state considers Pine Bush habitat more important than an artificially groomed English Landscape.”

“We’re in a lake of sand here,” notes Reppert. “Why are we pretending we’re in Wisconsin?” He also suggests, for example, interpretive signage at the Guilderland rest stop and a “Welcome to the Albany Pine Bush” sign at Fuller Road and Washington Avenue Extension, ideally in a roundabout planted with native species.

Reppert suggests for the UAlbany Campus, “no lawns except on playfields, with full student access to those remaining athletic playfields,” replacing current plantings in the interior courts with “native species, minidunes, and interpretive signage” and the “phased removal and replacement of all ornamental planting” with native species.

Hawver likes this vision. “You could plant pitch pine, scrub oak, prairie patches. You could do the same thing at the Harriman campus. People would say ‘Oh, this is vegetation I’m not used to seeing. It reminds me of Cape Cod or New Jersey.’ It would be kind of nice, it would be a kind of claim to fame for the region.”

Along with its intensive efforts to purchase more land for the preserve, manage and restore lands already preserved, and do educational outreach (including the scheduled-to-open-next-year discovery center in the former SEFCU building), the commission does work on encouraging native species planting, though in somewhat less ambitious ways than Reppert’s vision. One of their main motivations is that more traditional landscaping plants—Hawver lists bayberry, honeysuckle and Norway maple—are invasive, and tend to spread into the preserve and damage restoration efforts.

It should be an easy sell. Planting and maintaining non-native species in these sandy soils is hard work and involves heavy doses of fertilizer, possibly layers of sod, and tons of watering. And yet that is generally what property owners, from large institutions to homeowners, default to, out of habit.

The commission, which Hawver notes has only advisory powers (unlike the Pinelands Commission of New Jersey, which has the power, even if it is not well enforced, to dictate acceptable plantings in any development within New Jersey’s much larger coastal pine barrens), does have some success. Hawver says the commission has good working relationships with the DOT and the Thruway Authority, and notes that two recent bridge replacement projects along Route 155 and the upcoming work between Thruway exits 24 and 23, were or will be replanted with native species.

They also make recommendations in any commercial development (whether or not they supported the development itself in the first place). And sometimes they are taken up on them. Daughters of Sarah Nursing Home on Washington Avenue Extension, while under fire from Pine Bush advocates for its office complex plans, has at least taken some of the commission’s recommendations on landscaping, says Hawver. Clusters of pitch pine dot the nursing home parking lot, and there are no invasives to be seen. “It really looks good,” he says.

Finally, there are a number of homeowners in the buffer area of the preserve who appreciate the Pine Bush (and the work of maintaining a lawn on such sandy soils) enough to bring some of it into their own yards. Only a few go whole hog, notes Hawver, but quite a few have smaller lawns and then “native gardens.”

For Reppert, these efforts aren’t quite enough (though he recognizes the politically sensitive position the commission is in due to its composition, and doesn’t fault its work). First, as Hawver acknowledges, only homeowners are likely to change existing landscaping just because they want to. Otherwise, the spread of native plantings is dependent on negotiations over a new development or on public infrastructure projects that disturb existing vegetation and require replanting.

Also, while avoiding invasive species and planting things Pine Bush wildlife would treat as habitat can be important in reducing the dangerous fragmentation of Pine Bush ecology, many of the efforts Hawver describes don’t rise to the level of making people shake their heads and wonder what sort of landscape they have entered. As Hawver acknowledges, the Daughters of Sarah Nursing Home landscaping was “developed in a way that [it has] a more aesthetic appeal that people are used to for landscaping. More of a landscape design, but native plantings.” While some of the pines are striking, there is still cedar mulch on the ground rather than sand, and plenty of traditional shrub layouts that at a glance would be indistinguishable from the landscaping at nursing homes across the country.

Even when they go native, highway medians tend to be planted—for ease of maintenance, sight lines, and DOT-required clear zones—with native grasses and wildflowers, and are mowed annually to keep out nonnative trees and shrubs. It’s not quite a lawn, but neither is it a lunar landscape of pygmy pitch pines and dwarf chestnut oaks over bare sand dunes.

Though individual native species thrive in Pine Bush soil, long-term maintenance of the Pine Bush ecology relies on regular fires to clear out accumulating leaf debris that invasive species can take hold in and to make more nutrients available to the native species. And so encouraging wider planting of native species does beg the question about how well they will function as Pine Bush habitat.

The answer is they won’t entirely. Prairie-type patches will require mowing and weeding and replanting. Small patches of native trees and shrubs and grasses may not on their own attract the karner blue, or larger signature species, but, notes Hawver, they could well quietly support some of the Pine Bush’s other rare insects.

Without fire it wouldn’t be “functional Pine Bush” necessarily, says Reppert, but that wouldn’t be the point. The awareness effects would be worth it alone. “It’s a cartoon. It’s to show the drama,” he says.

Lynne Jackson of Save the Pine Bush, who says that she doesn’t find appreciation and support for the Pine Bush to be lacking among any but few developers and politicians, is less excited about focusing too much energy on native plantings. “I think reducing invasive species by planting native species would have a significant benefits,” she says, but “I will have to admit right now I’m more worried about the bulldozers.”

How far could a leading-by- example native planting effort on public lands coupled with a dramatic you-are-here campaign go? Could it take political will and financial support to a level that would entertain some bolder and more creative conservation moves than the commission is currently in a political position to push for? Could it shift the political discussion more firmly to the side of seeing the Pine Bush as a regional asset—an economic one—rather than a regulatory millstone around property owners’ necks?

Jackson, for one, would like to see a land trade between the Harriman campus and all the undeveloped Pine Bush land currently being sat upon by developers. This has happened twice before, she notes, with the SEFCU building and some parcels along Rapp Road that had been slated for offices. “This is the opportunity to concentrate development, and keep the Pine Bush wild,” she says. “Right now Albany has this incredible opportunity. If done right, an awful lot of Pine Bush could be saved.” It would save the city a bundle on new infrastructure costs, she adds, as well as tax revenues lost to the 45B tax program that gives tax breaks to buildings on formerly undeveloped land.

Broader awareness among UAlbany students and other campus visitors could also support Jackson’s proposal that the campus stop developing anything west of Fuller Road and focus on densifying its existing campus.

Reppert looks forward to the closing of the Rapp Road Landfill and suggests it be covered by a Pine-Bush golf course, in the vein of courses currently being developed at other ecologically sensitive locations around the globe. It would be a challenging course—pretty much all sand trap. “In the Northeast you can only find manicured greens,” he notes, and avid golfers are currently traveling long distances and paying pretty pennies to play on such specialty courses.

Any of these proposals, as well as dozens of other potential proactive conservation measures yet to be imagines, would require a significant amount of vetting, planning, and advocacy. What they hold in common is an appreciation of Pine Bush habitat that goes beyond whether a site currently hosts the beloved karner blue. “Just because the butterfly isn’t [on a given undeveloped site], it’s still a habitat. It isn’t a strip mall, it isn’t a parking lot,” says Hawver. “It’s a resource. The people who use the Pine Bush and love the Pine Bush know that.”

maxel-lute@metroland.net

 


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